STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Let's follow up, now, on an economic success story in Africa. In a continent where we often hear about war and famine, we could stand to hear more about the small nation of Malawi. Harvests are up and hunger is down that's thanks to a government program that passes out cut rate sacks of seed and fertilizer to farmers.
Some researchers think Malawi could do even better by reconsidering it's dominant crop. NPR's Dan Charles reports.
DAN CHARLES: Malawi is tucked into a corner of southeastern Africa. But when Sieg Snapp, an American agricultural scientist, arrived there in the early 1990s, she thought it looked pretty familiar.
Ms. SIEG SNAPP (Agricultural scientist): It's a little like going to Iowa, in that you see corn everywhere - up the hillsides, down the hillsides.
CHARLES: Corn, or maize, is the main source of food in Malawi and across much of eastern and southern Africa.
Ms. SNAPP: Maize is life, is a saying in Malawi.
CHARLES: But corn is a demanding crop. It needs lots of fertilizer, and that can be expensive. Also plenty of water. And Snapp says corn may provide calories to keep you alive, but it doesn't have everything your body needs.
Ms. SNAPP: Even with gains in maize, it is just a starch. Children, to grow healthy, need a bit of oil and protein.
CHARLES: In fact, about a third of the people in Malawi have experienced malnutrition severe enough to stunt their growth. Snapp was working with an international agricultural research center at the time and she started looking for ways that farmers could add something else to their fields and to their meals.
She thought about crops like peas or beans or peanuts. They don't deliver as much grain as corn does, but they contain precious protein. What's more - these crops, called legumes - actually make nitrogen fertilizer from air and replenish the soil for the next corn crop.
So for the last 10 years, Snapp and some colleagues in Malawi have been working with farmers all over the country who are willing to use some of their land to plant other crops. They tried lots of legumes: Pigeon peas, peanuts, even one that's more like a tree. The researchers wanted to know if those crops were practical for farmers to grow.
Ms. SNAPP: We had to see which ones were profitable, which ones took less labor. Farm families in Africa are really labor-strapped.
CHARLES: Last week, the researchers published their results in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Snapp is now at Michigan State University. She says the experiment confirmed her hopes. Farmers who planted some legumes got that bonus crop, plus, they got more corn from that land the next year because the legumes made the soil more fertile. Snapp says farmers liked growing pigeon peas best. Women farmers, in particular, were happy to grow a more nutritious crop.
Ms. SNAPP: Now it's starting to snowball. Fifty-some villages, 8,000 farm families are now doing this, some with, you know, minimal connection to the project. In other words, we're not providing seeds anymore.
CHARLES: So: problem solved? Maybe not, for most farmers, says David Rohrbach, an agricultural economist in the World Bank's office in Malawi. African farmers do grow legumes or vegetables when they can, he says. But in places like Malawi, many have so little land they're afraid to. Survival comes first.
Mr. DAVID ROHRBACH (Agricultural economist, World Bank): They're almost forced to put most of their land into their primary staple food, such as corn.
CHARLES: Rohrbach says he's more optimistic about a different approach: Find ways to grow more corn on each acre. If farmers are confident they can grow more than enough corn they'll be willing to spare some land for crops that provide a healthier diet.
Dan Charles, NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
INSKEEP: This is NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.